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The Death of Equine Expositions in America
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The Death of Equine Expositions in America

The downturn the economy experienced ten years ago did major damage on the equestrian industry. Almost overnight, breeders, trainers and boarding/training facilities tossed in the towel, sold off their property for pennies on the dollar and dropped out of the industry. Horses, that prior to the economic downturn, sold for tens of thousands of dollars could now be seen on Craigslist for a mere fraction of their originally estimated value.

Equine support businesses of all types - from large animal veterinarians to tack & feed stores - simply called it quits by the truckload and there was an overwhelming number of bankruptcies filed all over the country. Horse rescues were filled to capacity with unwanted horses who were perfectly good equine partners, that the human simply could no longer afford. Jobs went away, and with them the income to support a lifestyle with horses in it.

It was a very dark time for the industry. Those few businesses that were able to weather the storm, did so by the thinnest of margins and came through the experience greatly reduced in size, capability, and budget. Even now, with the economic health of the nation slowly on the upswing, equestrian based businesses are still tightening their belts, scared to make bold moves, praying more profitable times and hoping that today’s horsemen will invest, or reinvest, in their lifestyle of choice with them on some level.

Equine and Rural Lifestyle consumer expositions were no exception to the devastating impact created by the economic downturn. These amazing events, which facilitated the education, innovation, inspiration and celebration of all things equestrian and rural with hundreds of thousands of equestrian and rural lifestyle focused people annually, faced the very real scenario of no longer being able to do what they have done so well and on such a big scale for so many years. They were trusted resources for information, education and were the “IT PLACE” to be seen by everyone in the equestrian industry. Many of the “big names” in the equestrian industry – from clinicians to manufacturers – owe their long standing successes to Equestrian Expositions across the country!

Prior to the economic downturn, these expositions could fill multiple buildings in huge facilities to capacity with clinicians, breeds, groups, demonstrations, lectures, entertainment, products and services of every kind! The facilities that these expositions were hosted at literally fell over themselves to attract both the event management companies and attendees offering great packages for using their facility. Exhibitors competed for space in the expositions, flooding the email inboxes and fax machines with booth rental requests. Every Breed based organization, discipline-focused group, and riding club wanted to be part of the program. Attendees poured through the gates and spent thousands of dollars with Exhibitors on a variety of products and services.

Once the downturn happened, all of that changed and changed radically.

 Many of the big facilities, that could handle the requirements of an equestrian based exposition also went away or converted their holdings towards other uses when the economy tanked. The remaining few facilities – not the exposition event companies - across the country began raising all of their building rental prices, parking fees and even hit the exposition management companies with all sorts of restrictions on items such as arena use, stall use and food court options simply because they were the “only game in town” and they knew it.

In short, these facilities felt that the equestrian/rural lifestyle community and the events they loved were no longer worth partnering with. Instead they turned their focus towards what they perceived as better “money making” events, like Home/Garden Shows. Quilting Shows and Sports Expositions that took up “less space” took “less work” and for which they could charge more – and have multiple events at their facility on the same date!

It became incredibly difficult for the equestrian/rural lifestyle exposition companies to cover its expenses! The result of this disregard by the facility owners and managers is that many of the once huge expositions simply faded away and died, no longer able to afford to make their events a reality. Those few equestrian expositions that survived, had to make some very hard decisions and often had to reduce their overall size and activity offerings to a fraction of their former selves in order to just afford to host their event. This, in turn, caused attendance to drop and exhibitors to not be able to participate in the numbers seen just a few years prior.

Attendees were (and are) faced with similar dilemmas! They had to deal with rising fuel costs, increased parking cost imposed by the facility, and increase costs of food also imposed by the facility, which impacts participation and how much they can spend at an exposition with the Exhibitors they came to shop with. The exposition management companies try to help the Attendees out by keeping admission tickets as cost effective as possible. Ticket sales are what allows all the activities attendees love to happen at the event.

Without the attendees coming through the gates, activities cannot be afforded and exhibitor booth rates cannot be kept at cost effective levels, which makes it very hard for Exhibitors to justify participating even though they really want to. It is a destructive “catch 22.” All of these factors – and more – have led to the decline of the Equestrian Exposition in America. The exposition management companies simply cannot support the “mega expositions” of the past while dealing with these ever present factors of elevated costs and a slowly recovering economy. The sad truth is that the few remaining exposition survivors have had to radically deplete their capital reserves just to stay in the game, make their events happen and to do the best they could to support the community they love.

Contrary to much of the hype about “economic recovery” the truth is that the equestrian industry is a shadow of its former self and is only recently showing small signs that, if all goes well, recovery may slowly happen. No one who survived the economic downturn walked away unscathed. Exhibitors who once attended every exposition, bringing huge displays and large amounts of merchandise, today can barely manage to attend two events a year and at a greatly reduced presence. Even when the exposition companies discount participation rates drastically, these former “big players” can barely muster the cost of gas to get to the event! And while many “new players” in the industry see the value of participating in expositions, they simply do not have the operating capital to spend to get to the event, even though the impact to their bottom line would be extremely positive.

Most people would wonder “why would the surviving exposition event firms, that made it through the economic downturn, continue to work so hard for so little?”

The answer is simple. They believe in the equestrian/rural lifestyle consumer exposition as a force for positive change. They believe in the power of connection and what it provides for the entire industry - consumers and businesses - that is created at the events they create and host. They believe in the essential and long-term benefits of relationship building. They work effectively within a formula for building successful professional relationships in order to help the community remain strong. They are the bridge between Clinicians and Businesses with their customer base. They facilitate the interaction and provide the fertile soil to plant the seeds for success between the industry leaders and the end user. No other form of communication or marketing has such a positive impact.

What does this mean for Attendees of equestrian/ rural lifestyle expositions? It means that your favorite expositions are going to be smaller, but slowly growing back up to where they were ten years ago. It means that many of the “discount retailers” you are so used to seeing may be there but in a considerably smaller presence, if at all, for a while.

It means that the amount of entertainment that has become an expectation will be smaller or more focused. It means that the exposition company may have to broaden its scope of what is allowed to be exhibited in order to keep costs as low as possible. It may mean that the number of Clinicians is a little smaller and that the discipline-focused Clinicians may be harder to get.

It also means that the exposition company that creates the experiences you love is working doubly hard to bring you the very best event it can with the resources it has as well as the economic considerations it has to work with. In short, it means CHANGE. Gone are the days of packed exhibit halls where you cannot move and tons of “discount” retailers offering “low end” products. Many industry leaders are “aging out” and quitting and many discount retailers simply closed up shop when the economy tanked. It is a new reality and that has to be understood. The exposition companies hope that the “blamers and complainers” will quit blaming and complaining, take stock in the reality of the situation as it stands today and stop the negative commentary comparison to events that happened years ago. Those that support these wonderful exposition experiences are doing all that they can to keep the event alive, vital and recovering from some very dark times in the economy.

Attendees need to keep in mind that everything they see, from the initial marketing to promote the event, to the dirt in the arena, to the maintenance of the bathrooms cost money. Often times, this money is the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars that has to paid up front before the first ticket is even sold.

The effort and expense is massive and often takes all year to plan and execute! No exposition company can afford to reserve such a “top shelf” facility and all the logistical staffing that goes into setting up the event itself without covering its costs somehow. How are the up-front costs recouped? Most exposition companies split the costs between ticket sales and Exhibitor booth prices. If the exposition company lowers rates in one area, it has to make up the difference in another. That is simple math and basic business.

Attendees can help out by being more vocal with their favorite retailers and suppliers and encourage them to attend their favorite exposition! The exposition companies do everything that possibly can to keep the costs they can control as low as possible – booth spaces and ticket prices being the two main controllable costs – for all concerned. They work very hard all year long creating the best possible experience for Attendees that they can. If the Attendees can make the effort to show up and support the event, it is much easier for the exposition company to get the Exhibitors and activities they want to experience.

So, what can the few remaining exposition companies do in order to survive? Well, they can “reinvent themselves” with the hope that the “true heart” of the equestrian community – those attendees who want to learn from the best trainers and clinicians and those who want to learn about and purchase quality products and services from companies they can develop a relationship with – will attend and support the events they work so hard to create.

If the exposition goes from the “mega event” to a more “grass roots” theme, using less polished facilities, only having a few of the very best clinicians, keeping entry costs low and can offer good food choices at reasonable prices,  then attendees will need to adjust to a more “grass roots festival” feel at the event and support it.

If the exposition firm chooses to go with a “mega-event” feel, then the exposition company will need to reinvent what “mega-event” means to everyone, industry wide, and get very creative on every level of the event, finding ways to monetize certain options while keeping costs down.

That, however, is not easy as it sounds, and it may take some drastic measures to stay in the “mega event” genre, even to the point of losing money in the short term to generate the growth and enthusiasm needed to see the event through the long haul. It may require moving a new a new facility, out of state and away from a region that has been used for years. It may mean involving new focuses from the industry and new activities that have not been a part of the event before. It may mean taking real risks, investing real money with a long-term payoff in mind and thinking outside the box in marketing, programming, branding, and packaging while keeping everything as cost effective as possible. Again, none of this is easy, but it can be done if the exposition firm is brave enough to weather the changes and “cowboy up.” Of course, without the support of the community, the event simply cannot happen.

The economic downturn and the damage it did to the equestrian community was immense. Everyone who is still active within the community needs to be as supportive as they can, be adaptable in their thinking and be willing to move forward investing in the future instead of dwelling in the past. Every business needs still in the industry needs to capitalize on the opportunities for real connection and long-term relationships developed at expositions.

Together as a community, we can shape the future of the industry and the lifestyle we love simply by being positive, thinking about other people a little more and setting our goals to craft a bright future that will be of true benefit to us all. We either pick ourselves up out of the dirt, dust ourselves off and get to being force for positive change, or we pack up and go cry in the truck. It seems the time to choose is now.

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